REVIEW: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Oscar checkouts Guy Ritchie’s update of a 60’s classic. Did it deserve to bomb or was this a viable franchise?

If you ever wanted to see Superman and the Lone Ranger team up to prevent Nazis from blowing up the world, look no further! All joking aside, despite the disappointing box office and indifferent reviews, I will contend that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a fun, thrilling and slickly-crafted spy thriller. In a year filled with spy movies, this one stands out for its charismatic duo, stylistic direction and admirable recreation of the jauntier Sean Connery Bond films of the 1960s.

The plot is incredibly straightforward. In 1963, professional-thief-turned-CIA-agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) extracts Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from East Berlin. They evade a KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). It turns out that Gabby’s uncle, Rudi (Sylvester Groth) works for Alexander (Luca Calvani) and Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), a wealthy couple of Nazi sympathisers who intend to build their own private nuclear weapon, holding Gabby’s father – the former Nazi scientist Udo Teller (Christian Berkel) – hostage in order to complete this plan. The upcoming crisis forces the CIA and KGB to reluctantly team-up and Solo and Kuryakin are ordered to stop the Vinciguerras from succeeding, and Gabby escorts them undercover as Kuryakin’s fiancee. In light of the political climate, both men are secretly assigned to steal Udo Teller’s research for their respective governments and kill the other if need be.

The acting is solid overall, but the film is effectively held together by the chemistry between Cavill and Hammer. Both of their characters are well-realised in their own right, with Solo coming across as a confident, dashing, debonair operative delivering snappy repartee which masks a highly troubled past as a master criminal. Meanwhile, Illya is a muscle-bound giant of a man, but rather than him being just a dumb brute with a heart of gold, we see that he is very talented in the field. He struggles with his immense temper and physical prowess, but can be chivalrous when the situation suits him. I admit to having some partiality towards Cavill as Solo, and could really see him filling the shoes of 007 when Daniel Craig eventually leaves the franchise.

Vikander is certainly solid enough in the role of Gabby (and very attractive indeed), despite not having as much of a distinguishable personality as far as leading ladies in other 2015 spy films go. She does her best with the material provided and becomes more engaging in the third act. Hugh Grant as MI6 operative Mr. Waverly provides plenty of class and humour despite his limited appearance. Debicki as the vile Vinciguerra, while not an especially unique villainess, still conveys a great deal of cunning and sadistic pleasure in her deeds, and she has some sneaky, flirtatious moments with Cavill that drew me in every time. Calvani, despite turning in a decent performance, is unfortunately forgettable and easily overshadowed by Debicki.

Guy Ritchie’s style is all over this film and definitely captures the look of the era, from the stunning cinematography and staging of the action to the soundtrack which suits the tongue-and-cheek tone to a tee, featuring many famous tunes from the 60s. The action itself is played out well and allows you to see it all from various angles. There is one scene in the climax where Ritchie does resort to the tightly-shot and shaky look of the Bourne films, though, which felt out of place in spite of how well-shot and atmospheric it was. The editing is well-paced and multi-faceted, including the use of split-screens, allowing us to view multiple scenes at once like a comic book to maintain audience interest. The mandatory exposition even remains engaging by showing us backstory imagery of Solo and Kuryakin. In addition to the witty dialogue between Solo and Kuryakin, there’s a fair bit of naughty humour similar to that in Kingsman: The Secret Service, in which an evil character gets axed-off in a rather grisly fashion by his own torture device whilst the two spies exchange small talk. Little moments like that might be a turn-off for certain people, but being more familiar with the styles of Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn, I thought it was funny.

Even though the film plays out as the formative weeks for the Solo/Kuryakin team-up that eventually becomes the intelligence agency known as U.N.C.L.E., it stands on its own well enough. The film has been frequently branded as the “origin story” of the U.N.C.L.E. team in a somewhat condescending light, but there’s plenty of action and character elements to retain that essential classic spy thriller feel, so the “origin” aspect doesn’t feel as obnoxious as it tends to in other failed reboots. A sequel could expand on the world and characters of the film, but it doesn’t lean on one by necessity.

There are ultimately shortcomings, though, the major one being that it is essentially a throwback spy film that doesn’t offer much new to the genre. The familiarity of its plot elements, such as stopping a nuclear missile or the dynamic of two polar-opposites learning to work together, speaks for itself. The villain’s evil plan is also not original in the slightest. Despite my compliments to Debicki’s dalliances with Cavill, her personality and motives were not very memorable, and having a distinctive and threatening villain is absolutely key to the success of any spy movie. Playing out such a straightforward story with familiar characters for modern times just wasn’t a sufficient enough hook to catch a wide audience. Even though Hammer is compelling enough as Kuryakin, the various scenes were Teller attempts to seduce him just come off as unnecessary and, ultimately, not as fun as other scenes. I was far more engaged whilst both Cavill and Hammer were on-screen.

Nevertheless, I am confident that in time The Man from U.N.C.L.E. will find its audience, as I personally enjoyed it immensely. Even though it is a very familiar spy plot and the villains’ simplicity does bring the film down a little, there is much fun to be found in this stylish, fun, smoothly-executed love letter to the more spirited era of espionage thrillers. 

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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